I am of the belief that a minimum level of fans will see baseball no matter what. No matter how bad the team is, no matter how bad ownership is, no matter how bad traffic is. A certain amount of hardcore fans will go.
Even in Montreal, when ownership, MLB, and other factors combined to submarine the once-respectable Expos, the team still drew 642,745 fans in 2001. Locally, when the Devil Rays were at their absolute worst, they still drew 1,058,695 in 2003. Even if we discount every fan who attended games versus the Red Sox and Yankees (364,330), there were still 694,365 fans in Tampa Bay who were willing to see the worst team with the worst ownership in the worst stadium in Major League Baseball.
Earlier this season, the ESPN Magazine Ultimate Team Rankings rated the 122 owners in the major four sports on honesty and loyalty to core players and local community. While the Miami Marlins, led by Jeffrey Loria, were 122nd, the Tampa Bay Rays placed 90th. The Tampa Bay Lightning were 18th.
If this poll was re-taken today, the Lightning would definitely be higher, the Marlins might be higher, and the Rays would probably be much lower. Not only have the Rays executed a drastic offseason personnel plan, but nothing has gone the team’s way off the field either.
It is very possible the faith of the fanbase has been shaken. And that could affect attendance in 2015.
In 2002, the Charlotte Hornets fanbase was so riled up by its dislike of then-owner George Shinn, fans avoided Hornets games by the thousands. According to an Orlando Sentinel article,
“The dislike, the hatred, for George in this town right now is incredible,” said Lynn Wheeler, a Hornets fan and city-council member who has supported him repeatedly in the past. “That’s what this is all about. The people here still love the team, but the dislike for George is a stronger emotion. I don’t agree with it, but I see it every day. And it’s probably going to cost us all in the long run.”
Shinn and the Hornets are awaiting NBA approval on their application to relocate, citing a $1 million-a-month deficit and irreconcilable differences with the city, which repeatedly has turned down his demand for a new arena, and turned on his team to emphasize their distrust.
Could that happen to Stu Sternberg and the Rays? It is possible. Although with Shinn, the local animosity was personal. Blame for the Rays situation falls not only on the team, but also on the St. Pete City Council members who rejected the team’s proposal to look at other locations in Tampa Bay in exchange for monetary compensation.
To the Rays advantage, baseball season is still months away. Their PR people have time to spin their perspective and their marketing team has time to pitch their message for the new season. They have time to get fans excited.
Faith in ownership is a factor in attendance. To what extent, it is tough to say. Fans don’t take an ownership approval poll before buying tickets. But even if the team struggles, the ballpark experience isn’t great, and the stadium remains isolated from the center of the region, if enough fans keep their dollars in their wallets, or spend their baseball money on other venues, it will be easy to sense their disapproval.